Spey the planets

In a recent post I noted an Irish sense of the word gentle meaning ‘enchanted or visited by fairies’, used in Charles McGlinchey’s book The Last of the Name. That book also features the unusual word spey:

I think it would be a descendant of these Dohertys of Keenagh who was a great harp player, the best in Ireland. One Christmas market he was going to the fair of Carn, but his stepmother, who could spey [foresee] and read the planets, advised him not to go for there was blood over his head. When he insisted on going, she killed a rooster and sprinkled the blood over him.

On his way to Carn, a fight broke out between Catholics and Protestants; Doherty stabbed a man and had to leave the country. His stepmother’s spey proved accurate. Though glossed in the original as ‘foresee’, the verb spey is closer to ‘foretell’: more clairvoyance than prediction.

Also spelled spae (which is how most dictionaries list it, if they do), or spay, the word entered English from Old Norse spá around the 14th century and throughout its history has been in mainly Scottish use. I’m not sure of the connection, if there is one, to spy, which comes from the Indo-European root spek- ‘observe’.

The Dictionary of the Scots Language shows how spae may be used intransitively (‘spae nae mair about uncannie things’) and transitively (‘spaeing folk’s fortunes’). Robert Burns used it thus in ‘Halloween’:

Ye little skelpie limmer’s face!
How daur you try sic sportin’,
As seek the foul Thief ony place,
For him to spae your fortune!

The verb gave rise to a noun, spae ‘prediction, prophecy, omen’, which is in much rarer use. The OED cites Sabine Baring-Gould’s Iceland: its scenes and sagas (1863): ‘The Finns’ spae is come true, so here we shall settle.’

Various compounds have also emerged, like spae-book, spae-craft, spaer, spay-woman, spayman, and spay folk. There’s a River Spey in Scotland, but it’s not clear how it got its name.

14 Responses to Spey the planets

  1. DawninNL says:

    Yes indeed. Growing up in Dunfermline, Fife, I was very familiar with the term speywife, a woman who read fortunes.

  2. Thomas Denney says:

    To me it appears that the link is fairly clear between spay and “spy,” and the common English usage of the word “seer,” which applies to one who can read the signs and see into the otherwise unseen world. A seer is kind of peeking into that world, and in a sense spying on it.

  3. ktschwarz says:

    English got spy from French (Old French espier), but it was in French because it was borrowed into Vulgar Latin from Germanic. So yes, they both go back to the same Proto-Germanic source, but the English word took a side trip through Romance. Latin and Germanic had quite a lot of borrowings from each other.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for clarifying the etymology, KT. That’s helpful. I just remembered that espy → spy is an example of apheresis, which I wrote about here.

      • ktschwarz says:

        And the e was there in French because the early Romance languages didn’t like initial s+consonant clusters, and stuck a vowel in front of them: prothesis, the opposite of apheresis. When English took it off again, it was a lucky accident of two phonological changes canceling each other out!

  4. dawninNL says:

    Yes, wife is used to mean woman, the wife or wife next door for example and in other ways too. A fishwife- loud and coarse; sweetiewife – too nice to be true

  5. sawneymac says:

    Scots of a certain vintage might recall Granny McBrochan – the local speywife in the old Angus Og comic strips (set in Drambeg, “the fairest island in the Utter Hebrides”).

  6. languagehat says:

    Though glossed in the original as ‘foresee’, the verb spey is closer to ‘foretell’: more clairvoyance than prediction.

    I don’t understand the distinction you’re making here, and I don’t understand why foretell is paired with “clairvoyance” rather than “prediction” — isn’t fore-tell literally pre-dict?

    • Stan Carey says:

      Literally it is, but usage doesn’t always strictly follow morphology, as you know. When I wrote it I checked the two words in a couple of reference works, to make sure it wasn’t just my own impression of their difference; when you queried it I checked a couple more.

      In summary: Foresee and foretell, though partially synonymous, diverge in collocation, connotation, and semantic scope. The American Heritage Dictionary defines foresee as ‘to imagine or know as a probable occurrence; anticipate or predict: foresaw economic decline‘; it defines foretell as ‘to tell of or indicate beforehand; predict’. Then, listing the synonyms foretell, augur, divine, and prophesy, it notes: ‘These verbs mean to tell about something beforehand by or as if by supernatural means‘ [my emphasis].

      My Oxford thesaurus supports this subtle distinction, listing the synonyms of foresee as anticipate, envisage, expect, forecast, and picture; those of foretell as augur, bode, forebode, foreshadow, forewarn, herald, portend, predict, presage, prophesy, and signify. Similar semantic fields – overlapping but distinguishable in range and application – can be found in e.g. M-W, whose Compact Dictionary of Synonyms gives the example sentences ‘no one could foresee the economic crisis’ and ‘seers foretold of calamitous events’.

  7. languagehat says:

    Huh, interesting. I guess I’m so temperamentally allergic to all things supernatural that I never assimilated that semantic range and its distinctions.

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